OAKLAND — Carrying a bat in his hand and sporting a heavy — but soft — brace around his right knee in the locker room before Friday’s series opener against the Chicago White Sox, Oakland Athletics outfielder Stephen Piscotty said it was just nice to move around again.
Thirteen days after injuring the knee sliding into second base against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Piscotty, 28, is optimistic about his return, even though it may be more than a week away.
Piscotty is just one of several additions the A’s will make as they enter the season’s home stretch. Just one loss off their pace from a 97-win 2018, Oakland has remained in contention despite a struggling bullpen and an injured Khris Davis. With both of those shortcomings set to be righted, plus a stronger supporting cast and the addition of a familiar ace starter, the A’s are looking at the possibility of a very strong second half.
“Ninety-seven’s going to be a stretch at this point,” said manager Bob Melvin. “Every year is different, and the way we’ve gotten here is a lot different, but I think we’re capable of getting better as we go along. I thought that from the very beginning … I think we have more confidence at this point. We’re getting contributions from everybody. We have some guys that are going to heat up that are going to impact our lineup.”
The A’s start the second half roughly where they were a year ago through 91 games. Going into this year’s All-Star break, they had won 17 of their 24 games and were the fourth-best team in baseball after June 2. They’re 1 1/2 games out of a playoff spot, and managed that while Davis missed 17 games and hit just .232 with 16 homers (10 in the month of April).
Davis has seen his strength sapped by a hip injury sustained in Pittsburgh and a hand injury after being hit by a pitch.
“He went from one injury to the next, kept wanting to play,” Melvin said. “As you watched his swings, he was affected by the injuries. Hopefully, we’re passed that now, and typically, when he’s healthy, he’s very productive. It’s been good that we’ve been able to share the load some without him producing like he normally does.”
Oakland has been able to thrive in spite of Davis’s struggles because both Matt Chapman (21 homers) and Matt Olson (19 in 51 games) are on track for career years, as are shortstop Marcus Semien (batting a career-best .271) and center fielder Ramon Laureano (16 homers).
“The way Olson and Chapman are swinging the bat, Laureano and Semien, now all of the sudden, you put our top power hitter into the mix, too, it’d be pretty good,” Melvin said.
Davis has hit .247 each of the last four years, and totalled 133 homers in the last three, more than any hitter in baseball. Last year, he went from slugging .503 before the break to .610 after, popping 27 homers and nine doubles.
While the A’s are being cautious with Piscotty — just because he’s moving doesn’t mean he’s close to returning — he’ll come back relatively fresh. He’s already started hitting and throwing, will run off a treadmill for the first time on Saturday, and already looked antsy to advance in his recovery, which will end with a rehab assignment.
Before he went down, Piscotty was slashing .242/.306/.391 with nine homers, 15 doubles and 34 RBIs. After the All-Star break in 2018, Piscotty hit .272 with 15 homers, 17 doubles and 42 RBIs in 63 games.
Already out on rehab are a trio of arms the A’s expect to help them down the stretch — Sean Manaea, A.J. Puk and Jharel Cotton.
Manaea, on the way back from shoulder surgery last September, will pitch for the Single-A Stockton Ports on Saturday. In his first rehab start on Tuesday, Manaea — last season’s ace — allowed six runs (four earned) on seven hits in 2 1/3 innings in a 9-1 loss to the Visalia Rawhide. If anything can be taken from that outing, it’s that he threw strikes. Of his 43 pitches, 32 were strikes, though he did have a wild pitch. On Saturday, the Ports visit Rancho Cucamonga — the Dodgers’ affiliate — and Manaea is slated to throw four innings (or likely 60 pitches).
Cotton — who would come out of the pen if and when he gets to the big leagues this season — will make the second appearance of his re-started rehab on Saturday. It’s his fifth minor league outing since coming back from Tommy John, but he had to pause his progress due to hamstring surgery in early June.
Puk threw his seventh outing this season on Thursday, allowing two hits and a run while striking out four in two innings, throwing 23 pitches and 18 strikes for Double-A Midland. Like Cotton, Puk is a starter in Oakland’s long-term plans, but would debut this season as a reliever.
“Hopefully, he’ll be up in Las Vegas for a few outings,” Melvin said. “Really good command yesterday, a lot of strikes. I think he’s starting to throw a lot better, and getting the pitch count up and the innings up, which is good, as well.”
The A’s bullpen should also right itself after blowing 16 saves in the first half. Last year’s bullpen was third in the majors in ERA, and had just 18 blown saves through 162 games. Closer Blake Treinen has seen his ERA jump from an All-Star 0.78 to 4.17, his WHIP nearly double from 0.834 to 1.555 and his strikeout-to-walk ratio go from 4.76 to 1.61. After going down briefly with injury, he was replaced by a red-hot Liam Hendriks, who earned his first career All-Star nod with a very effective June.
Similarly, set-up man Lou Trivino has faltered, with his ERA ballooning from 2.92 to 4.50, allowing more runs in his 40 innings this year (25) than he did in 74 last season (24).
“That’s going to get ironed out,” Melvin said. “They’ll end up pitching like they have been. I think we can get stronger in the second half.”
The A’s are starting Jurickson Profar at second on Friday, instead of Franklin Barreto, who Melvin has said will get the lion’s share of at-bats at second going forward after Profar hit .212 in the first half.
“We have to keep him playing some,” Melvin said of Profar, who at one point was the consensus No. 1 prospect in all of baseball. “Barreto’s going to get most of the games, and Barreto will be back in there tomorrow. I just wanted one more left-handed bat in there today.”
Barreto played in just seven games before the break, and didn’t get off to a roaring start (2-for-23), but before he was called up, he was slashing .296/.379/.549 with 12 homers, five triples, 24 doubles and 48 RBIs for Triple-A Las Vegas.
“I think what we’re going to find out about Franklin is when he goes through a struggle and gets through it,” Melvin said. “That’s the hard part for younger players at the big league level, is even if you get off to a good start, you’re probably going to go through a struggle at some point. Then, when you get out of it, you really find out who that player is. We haven’t been able to give Franklin that opportunity to this point, but this is his best opportunity to get a lot of at-bats.”
Josh Phegley will start at catcher in the opener, while Chris Herrmann — who was hitting .417 since coming off the injured list — will get the start in Saturday’s day game.